‘Freedom for Fail Alsynov!’ Why a Bashkir activist’s prosecution was enough to spark major protests in 2024’s Russia
This past week, Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan was the site of some of the largest protests the country has seen since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But while the ongoing war is an important part of the context of all of Russia’s social unrest these days, it wasn’t the reason for this demonstration. Instead, the protesters were demanding freedom for Fail Alsynov, one of the leaders of the Bashkir nationalist movement and a prominent local activist. While Alsynov has done his best in recent years not to give the authorities any easy excuses to prosecute him, his political bedfellows have become increasingly critical of the Kremlin since February 2022. Late last year, Bashkortostan’s leaders took advantage of a phrase Alsynov used at an environmental protest to finally charge him with a felony, and this week, he was sentenced to four years in prison. The independent outlet Verstka, which sent a correspondent to the protests sparked by the ruling, explained how the unrest unfolded and why support for Alsynov is so strong in Bashkortostan. Meduza summarizes the report in English.
On January 17, thousands of people (between 5,000 and 10,000, according to various estimates) gathered for the second major protest outside of a courthouse in Baymak, Bashkortostan, in two days.
Both times, the demonstrators were there to support Fail Alsynov, an activist who found himself on trial for “inciting ethnic hatred” after years as one of the most prominent leaders of Bashkortostan’s nationalist movement. Alsynov is 37 years old and has a wife and four children. According to his associates, he works as a foreman in a small private construction company.
Alsynov was born in Yuldybaevo, a small village in Bashkortostan’s Zilairsky District. After graduating from Bashkir State University with a history degree, he joined a nationalist organization called Kuk Bure (“Sky Wolf” in Bashkir), where he was elected vice chairman just a few years later.
As Alsynov’s associate Ruslan Gabbasov writes in his book Notes of a Bashkir Nationalist, Kuk Bure sought out young Bashkir men who weren’t afraid to “get their hands dirty” in fights with Russian nationalists or people from Russia’s North Caucasian republics. At the same time, Kuk Bure engaged in political activism, organizing rallies in support of the Bashkir language and in defense of natural sites considered sacred by many Bashkirs. It was at these protests, Gabbasov writes, that Alsynov became a respected figure in Bashkir society.
In 2014, Alsynov left Kuk Bure and, together with Ruslan Gabbasov, founded a new Bashkir nationalist organization called Bashkort. The new movement quickly became popular with the republic’s political opposition; its social media page eventually garnered more than 60,000 followers.
Under Alsynov’s leadership, Bashkort promoted a right-wing national policy and a left-wing economic policy: the group’s activists lobbied the Kremlin to give Bashkortostan more independence, demanded policy measures to protect and popularize the Bashkir language, advocated for nationality quotas in the republic’s government, and called for the nationalization of resource-extracting companies.
In 2020, Alsynov was one of the main organizers behind protests to preserve the Kushtau shihan, a hill formed from an ancient coral reef that the chemical company Bashkir Soda Company planned to use for limestone mining. Demonstrators from throughout Bashkortostan got into physical clashes with security officials and ultimately convinced the republic’s governor, Radiy Khabirov, to grant the hill protector status.
That same year, Bashkortostan’s Supreme Court declared Bashkort an extremist organization and banned it from operating. Within months, Ruslan Gabbasov fled the country for Lithuania, where he was granted asylum. Alsynov, meanwhile, remained in Russia. For the next two years, Gabbasov told Verstka, Alsynov “tried to formulate his public statements in such a way that they wouldn’t give the authorities an excuse to launch a criminal case.” After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, police detained Alsynov several times, but they quickly released him each time without charging him.
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In the spring of 2023, Bashkortostan’s Baymak District, where Alsynov would later be sentenced to four years in prison, saw two major protests against proposed gold mining projects. At the second one, in which several thousand people gathered in the village of Temyasovo, Alsynov joined them from the regional capital of Ufa and, as one of the most prominent activists in attendance, addressed the crowd.
Bashkirs, Alsynov told the protesters, no longer had their own land, their own language, or their own president. “Our boys,” he added, are “dying” rather than defending their own land. Alsynov blamed these problems on “outsiders” who he said were “taking our land”: Armenians, Russians, Tatars, and kara khalyk, a phrase that literally means “black people” but that Alsynov said he was using to refer to “unskilled laborers.” (The independent Russian outlet Agentstvo has reported that the term carries a meaning close to “common people” or “simple folk” in modern Bashir.)
“This is our land!” Alsynov told his fellow demonstrators. “We’re not going anywhere! Armenians will go back to their country, Russians will go to Ryazan, Tatars will go to Tatarstan, kara khalyk will go back to their homes. We, [however], have nowhere to go — our home is here.”
In October 2023, the Bashkortostan prosecutor’s office charged Alsynov with “inciting ethnic hatred” for his speech in Temyasovo; linguists who “analyzed” the activist’s words concluded that the term “kara khalyk” amounted to hate speech and that Alsynov had been referring to Central Asian migrants. The case against Alsynov came in response to a request from Governor Radiy Khabirov himself.
On January 15, when Khabirov was scheduled to be sentenced, between 2,000 and 5,000 people gathered outside of the Baymak courthouse, where they chanted slogans such as “We are kara khalyk!” and “Freedom!” and demanded Khabirov’s resignation. The judge in the case postponed the hearing until January 17.
The authorities took advantage of the following two days to prepare for the backlash, detaining prominent activists for questioning and recruiting religious leaders to spread the message that Sharia prohibits protesting. Meanwhile, Alsynov’s supporters created WhatsApp groups, where they helped people find rides to the next protest, advised demonstrators on what to wear to stay warm, and coordinated meal planning so that the protesters wouldn’t get hungry.
Activists also distributed rules for the protest, telling participants not to provoke the police, shout anti-government slogans, or use any symbols outside of Bashkortostan’s official tricolor flag.
By the time the judge handed down Alsynov’s sentence, the crowd of protesters was approximately 3,000 people strong — and growing. The news that the activist had been sentenced to four years in prison — even more than state prosecutors had requested — quickly spread on social media, but many of his supporters were incredulous. Finally, Alsynov’s lawyer came out of the court building and confirmed the news, sending the protesters into a fury.
Journalists who attended the hearing asked Alsynov to comment on the thousands of people who showed up to support him. “An enormous thanks to everyone. I’ll never forget this,” he said, adding that he maintained his innocence and that he never expected such a harsh sentence.
Half an hour later, security officials tried to drive Alsynov away from the court building in a police van, but the crowd surrounded the vehicle, preventing it from moving for several hours. Riot police officers tried to clear the road by hitting protesters with rubber batons, detaining people, and throwing tear gas grenades into the crowd. In response, demonstrators covered their faces with scarves, but many still refused to leave.
In the afternoon, the police began using flashbang grenades to force people away from the courthouse, but this, too, was unsuccessful. Protesters began throwing snowballs at them, and in response, the officers hit them with batons. Eventually, Fail Alsynov’s father appeared from the crowd and proposed a deal: the crowd would allow the police van to pass through in exchange for the authorities releasing the arrestees. The police agreed to release four people, and the protesters reluctantly began to disperse.
Soon after the commotion died down, the Bashkortostan Investigative Committee announced it had launched a criminal case in response to the protests. Local Telegram channels that had covered the protests were shut down. Ruslan Gabbasov, Alsynov’s associate who now lives in Lithuania, released a “video message to the Bashkir people.” In it, he called on Russian citizens to “join the act of disobedience.”
Fail Alsynov is considered one of the leaders of the Bashkir nationalist movement, Bashkortostan’s most serious opposition force. The movement has changed since the 1990s, with its original leaders being replaced by new ones and its rhetoric going progressively from radical to more measured, but it’s never lost popularity.
In the 2010s, Bashkir nationalist activists kept their demands relatively moderate, never directly advocating for Bashkortostan’s secession from Russia and aiming their criticism at the local authorities, not the federal ones. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine had a radicalizing effect on their rhetoric, however. The movement strongly condemned Moscow’s actions and called on Bashkirs not to take part in the war. Because he remained in Russia, Fail Alsynov himself did his best not to speak publicly about the war, but his associate Ruslan Gabbasov, as well as all of the Telegram channels associated with the Bashkir nationalists, began writing regularly about how the war in Ukraine is “not our war.”
Russia’s losses in the war, which have included at least hundreds of people from Bashkortostan, spurred the Bashkir nationalist movement to become even more outwardly critical of the authorities. Its members began speaking openly about the need to secede from Russia, advising Bashkirs to mentally prepare for a war of independence.
Fail Alsynov, though doing his best to tread carefully, didn’t stop his political activity. He kept traveling regularly to community meetings on environmental issues and continued to be seen by his fellow Bashkirs as a leader of the nationalist movement.
After the authorities filed charges against him, Alsynov became more active on social media, starting a Telegram channel that soon garnered more than 4,000 followers and sharing the details of his case on VKontakte, where he had about 8,000 followers.
Many of Bashkortostan’s most well-known figures have spoken out in support of the activist, including Raufa Rakhimova, the publisher of the local newspaper Bonus and the niece of Bashkortostan’s first president, Murtaza Rakhimov.
According to Ruslan Gabbasov, Alsynov’s popularity is partially a result of his humble lifestyle: “He rides an ordinary Škoda, he has an ordinary apartment in Ufa, he’s never involved in any corruption scandals, and he hasn’t been seen compromising with the authorities.”
“No crowd this big has attended hearings against any politicians — neither in Ufa nor in Moscow,” Gabbasov told Verstka. “How many people came to support the Russian nationalist [Igor] Strelkov? A few hundred, not a few thousand. This speaks not just to the respect Fail Alsynov enjoys among the Bashkir people, but also to the significant potential for protest in Bashkortostan.”
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